If you want to get your team running smoothly—or cultivate a more cohesive and empathetic office— we might suggest you take a walk in your coworker’s shoes. Or perhaps embrace the workplace version of an old saying: Don’t judge a person until you sit for a day at their desk.
Last week, our interest in desk swaps spiked when Fast Company's Noah Robischon shared his firsthand experience of spending a day in someone else's chair. For one day not long ago, Robischon swapped spots with Tina Roth Eisenberg, the founder of Swissmiss design studio. It was a workflow-altering experience, where Robischon, bathed in alternative rock and surrounded by temporary tattoos, fell for the spirit of the truly collaborative workspace.
Would I give up my office with a sliding glass door and faux Aeron chair in favor of such a dynamic workplace? You bet. The Studiomates support one another through overlapping disciplines. One person sells clothes and another sells software, but they share intelligence and trade advice on pain points like fulfillment solutions (Digiweb), collaboration tools (still Basecamp), and conferences to attend (XOXO in Portland).
While some offices, or employees, embark on routine desk swaps to reenergize and inspire creativity, others take it up a notch. Soon after Robischon's story went up, we caught wind of Conover Tuttle Pace, (CTP) a Boston ad agency, and their Summer Sublet program
The sublet is much like it sounds: It's a total office shuffle where everybody from low-level employees to executives are forced to sit somewhere new. All 55 of CTP's employees take place in a draw to determine their seating place, and they stay there for the next three months.
As the video above shows, it's a high stakes game. Draw a low number in the draft, and you're more likely to get a corner office; a high number will find you seated in a portion of the office's open work space.
"You find a lot of people offering trades like free coffee or movie tickets," says Holly Copeland, a digital experience producer who took place in her first summer sublet earlier this year. "Tensions are pretty high, and people are scheming. It definitely broke down the walls of the office a bit."
Copeland, who picked the "unfortunate" number of 39, was given the opportunity to share a corner office with another employee, thus lessening the blow of her low pick. Together with her new office mate, she produced the following celebratory Vine:
For Copeland, the most valuable aspect of the summer sublet—besides it being a fun experience—was the introduction of a whiteboard into her creative process. She and her coworkers had always had access to a whiteboard in the office's communal space, but having one right next to her desk made it an essential aspect of her workflow.
"Now that we’re back in our regular seats, we can’t remove that from that process so we seek out that space," she says. "I don’t know if we ever would have brought it into our work if it wasn’t from summer sublet."
As Copeland's experience proves, the essence of the summer sublet isn't just to ramp up competition and funny Vines. CTP Cofounder President Fred Conover came up with the idea over dinner at an awards ceremony and says it's become instrumental in the company's culture.
"I was sitting there with one of my partners and we were talking about how we could get our PR team better integrated with the rest of the agency," he says. "We all work together across departments, but we kind of set the floor plan up where the PR team sits there, the creative team sits there, and so on."
"We should do something that turns the office floor plan upside down. What if we just put every workspace up for grabs and that would get our various teams integrated with each other?"
The plan worked—four years later, Conover says that not only are teams more collaborative but they have more empathy for each others' day-to-day challenges. When coworkers experience the difficulties that they might otherwise not face in a different department—the angry phone call, difficult (yet, unrelated) conversations—it creates a sense of unity. It's also the highlight of the year.
"Everybody still gets excited about it," he says. "It’s a glimpse into another part of the world that other people live in."
Some get more excited than others. According to CTP's director of talent, Jenny Love, Conover enjoyed a recent move so much it was hard to get him to move back into his office.
"Every time we move him out into the open workspace," she says, "he never wants to move back in September."
[Images courtesy of CTP]